December 30, 2009


(This review may only be shared in its entirety.)

I was asked to review this movie for "The Catholic New World," Chicago's Archdiocesan Newspaper (being that I am its storied movie reviewer). However, the language and jokes are just so lewd and coarse, I could never do that. Note to guys everywhere: Women hate this kind of humor. If we say we like it, we're just pretending, like we say we like sports. And we think you should hate it, too.

There are very few women in the film. Only two young women who get dissed (and avenged), two bimbos, and Queen Clothilde. Yes, the dead French saint, but it works. It's kind of unfortunate that this isn't family viewing (an option was obviously made for "adult fare" to preserve the authenticity of the worlds of stand-up comedians, the street, addiction and guy-dom.) You know when a joke is off-color, but the general concept of the joke and its execution are really, really funny? That's "Tapioca."

Also, the DVD says "2007," and we try to review mostly current films.

That being said, this is actually a very interesting, though at times rather staged, movie. Call it "gutter theology"—literally. "Pipes" (Chicago stand-up comedian Mike Houlihan) is a down-on-his-luck Chicago used car salesman and TV pitchman. He descends into homelessness because of booze and the fact that he's basically a jerk. Or "slimebag" as St. Peter calls him. Yes! Another dead saint that totally works. Not corny. I really liked this grizzled St. Peter with his fisherman's slicker, sitting in a southside Irish pub. Oh yes, and Pipes is a racist. But the tables are turned on him by "Nuts" (Ben Vereen!)—a mysterious, crazy, homeless guy with one of the cutest, shiniest-coated homeless dogs ever. The tables are COMPLETELY turned on Pipes, and he is forced to eat his words, almost to his utter degradation. It reminded me of the Israelites wandering in the desert—who complained to God that they would die there. And so they did. The Houlihan/Vereen thing also reminded me of the famous episode of "All in the Family" with Archie Bunker and Sammy Davis, Jr. (one of the greatest moments in TV as far as I'm concerned).

Out of all the things I like about "Tapioca," my favorite thing is that it's LOCAL, GRASSROOTS FILMMAKING. If I didn't know some guys like Pipes here in Chicago, I may not even totally get "Tapioca." It's that local. I'm from Boston, have lived in various cities around the country, and only Chicagoans say "goofy." A lot. Hollywood can do a "version" of Chicago, but Chicago can do Chicago best. "Streetwise." "Fermilab." "Little Company of Mary." Unintelligible to the rest of the country. Yay.

What really DIDN'T work in this movie was—alas—the title! And it's almost as though the filmmakers knew it, because they keep bludgeoning us over the head with the word and the convoluted concept. This movie should have been called, pardon MY French now: "Saving A**." The tagline should have been the wonderful advice (among a lot of other wonderful advice in the film): "Think about saving someone else's a** for a change." THAT'S what this movie is all about!!! (It would also have given a clue to the rough nature of the film.) Someone called in to Relevant Radio recently (our Midwestern Catholic radio station) and asked, "How can I make Christmas holy?" After seeing "Tapioca," I thought to myself, "simple": "Think about saving…."

It's hard to classify this film—and that's good, too! Truly experimental, ground-breaking stuff. There's lots of improv woven in (lots of stellar sob stories from panhandlers—just like we've all heard—that deserve remuneration just because they're so entertaining), cartoons, one-liners, soliloquies, a sudden busting out of rhymes (hip-hop), a kind of jazzy vaudevillian soundtrack (for Pipes is a sort of tragic clown), a brilliant scene where Pipes meets an old Black street preacher—this actor is incredible. I laughed so hard and rewatched a few times to catch each flawless second/detail.

There are many poignant moments, like whenever the homeless Danny shows up: an abused child in an adult's infirm body. There is a realism, a verite to most of the film—which, of course, contrasts with the self-conscious "staged" parts, and the tongue-in-cheek parts, and all the other parts. The dialogue is more real than the most realistic screen dialogue--because it doesn't go for verisimilitude—it feels more like a partially-scripted "reality show" or like "The Office." It's like a prolonged, enhanced sketch comedy. It doesn't feel "all over the place," but rather like a variety-pack with a big dose of crazy.

Pipes' humor is that Irish, melancholic, crying-in-my-soup brand of humor. It reminded me of the classic 1960's documentary, "Salesman," about a Boston-Irish Bible salesman whose sales are going down because of his increasing cynicism.

"Tapioca" deals with lots of stigmas: mental illness, alcoholism, losing one's job, homelessness, LOTS of urinating and defecating….

There's a bit of Dickens' "Christmas Carol" to "Tapioca." This dark comedy is also a story of redemption. Men discovering their own and others' humanity. Wanting to discover it. The "brotherhood of man." Who won't go to heaven? "Those who forget what it means to be a human being," warns the gatekeeper. There is a meeting of the minds, a rough coming together of Black Mississippi-bred Christian faith and White Irish Catholicism. It reminded me also of the movie "Crash," where people REALLY say what they're REALLY thinking without holding back. And it's for the better. Gets things in the open air where they can be dealt with.

Religion is not icing in "Tapioca." It's the entrée. All our good deeds are written in the Big Book. God is real. The divine is poking through all over the place.

Besides Mike Houlihan, Mark Borchardt, and Ben Vereen (Emmy and Tony Award Winner—"Roots," "All That Jazz"), "Tapioca" features Gregory Hollimon ("The Fugitive," "Strangers with Candy") and Tim Kazurinsky ("SNL").


Bookmark and Share

December 29, 2009


Want to print this out as a flyer? (Look for "Church History Flyer")

"Da Vinci Code"? "Angels and Demons"?

Do you know your Church history???

Church History Study

20-Week Overview of 2000 years!

Pick up where Acts of the Apostles left off!

"EPIC—A Journey Through Church History" Jeff Cavins DVDs and a facilitator!

JANUARY 16—JUNE 26, 2010

WHEN: Saturday mornings 10:30AM—12:00PM

WHERE: PAULINE BOOKS & MEDIA 172 N. Michigan Ave. (between Lake and Randolph)
MATERIALS: Optional workbook $25, optional timeline chart
COST: $40
Pre-registration required: 312-346-4228 or
(Sorry, payment not refundable after Jan. 16.)
It's the greatest story…NEVER told!


Name:_________________________________________________________________________________________ Address:______________________________________________________________________________________ City/State/Zip:________________________________________________________________________________ Phone:_____________________ Email:____________________________________________________________
Method of payment: CASH CHECK VISA MC
TOTAL: $____________________________

December 28, 2009


Call me a CGI philistine, but I don't really see what's so technically DIFFERENT about "Avatar" from the other fine SPFX-laden movies these days (even after seeing it in IMAX 3-D), but I will take the film world's word for it that this is a ginormous leap forward. The biggest technological leap forward that I was ever able to perceive on screen is still "Star Wars" (and--I'm serious--the pioneering "Veggie Tales").

"Avatar" is not all about action and special effects, however. There is superlative acting by Sam Worthington* (the soldier), Sigourney Weaver (the chain-smoking scientist), Stephen Lang (the ruthless Colonel). The story is entertaining and satisfying. The banter is amusing and truth-telling.

"Avatar" documents the soldier's struggle. The soldier is always in the middle. Always the one who pays the most: with body, soul, conscience, sanity. (That is, the soldier pays the most after the "collateral damage" innocent civilians caught up in the crossfire.) A soldier's intentions are not necessarily those of the war machine behind him/her (big business, big science, multi-nationals, the military, the government), and the soldier may not always realize this till he/she is in deep.

Jake Sully is a wheelchair-bound Marine who is nobody's first choice for a mission to the moon Pandora where a priceless substance called "unobtanium" is found "below the ground." It's the new petrol that Earth (led by the USA, of course) must have by any means necessary.

Jake goes to Pandora as a native avatar (the natives—the Na'vi--of Pandora are blue, nine-feet tall and have a culture/dress/jewelry/weapons/beliefs/language very similar to Native Americans). Like the movie "Surrogate," people are immobile in a bed-like device while their avatar is active.

Jake is just following orders, doing a job on Pandora--but his heart is strong, good and fearless, which is readily recognized by the natives, especially the chief's daughter, Neytiri, (Zoe Saldana—superlative voice-acting). The natives agree to teach him their ways (as Jake secretly reports back to the Colonel and Grace, the scientist). But when Jake realizes the Na'vi will never move from their uber-valuable home, and the expedition to extract the unobtanium is going ahead at whatever cost, he must choose sides.

What is so thoroughly new and earth-shaking (cosmos-shaking) to me about "Avatar," is its theology. The Na'vi live in harmony with nature (although they kill animals for food, but ask forgiveness of each animal they kill—like Native Americans) and worship a Mother Goddess who is completely transcendent and outside of nature. (Therefore, this is not pantheism, panentheism, or even New Age). We never see her, but the Divine is firmly a character, sustaining life and intervening. Something like the concept of Providence. The Na'vi even say at a certain point: "God will provide." We haven't really seen this kind of a God in the movies before. If there is a mention of God in movies, it's often a kind of magical, God-as-Santa, God-as-a-just-in-case-cover-all-the-bases-God, God-as-superstition, or fleeting references to a rather distant, occasionally meaningful Judaeo-Christian God ("Christian" films and some African-American films are an exception, because God is either central or taken seriously or both).

"Avatar" presents a rather sound natural theology. God is beyond nature, but acting upon and within nature. Nature is presented according to "The Gaia Theory": all of Nature is one giant, interactive, interlocking, entirely interdependent living organism, starting at the sub-atomic level. Usually, the Gaia Theory (a scientific explanation) is presented without reference to God; and religion tends to teach only about God and humans without reference to Nature. "Avatar" brings the two together.

We are so individualistic that we need this message of our profound organic connection--that only modern science could have concretely revealed to us! Yay, modern science! This is ultimately what is all about. Our profound interconnectedness.

Extremists at both ends of the environmental movement are actually reading from the same playbook ("extremes meet"). Both those who trash Mother Nature with impunity and those who believe humans are a scourge/plague on the face of the Earth that should be eliminated believe—falsely—that HUMANS ARE NOT A PART OF NATURE. We most certainly are! If we could only recognize our God-designed, God-planned, God-willed "naturalness," which begins with "bodiliness," (Theology of the Body, anyone?) we would all be on the right track. Why else could St. Francis say: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wolf? Was he New Age? Pagan? I think not.

Kudos to writer-director James Cameron (although "Avatar" is obviously not a complete, Christian worldview) for filling in the blanks and connecting the dots between God, man and nature. I really do believe that it's time we started to see more of this convergence on the silver, TV and computer screen. Hollywood's basic silence about God is very unnatural and distressing. We need to see more of this GOD AS EVERYTHING. GOD AS PRIMARY. God who is the Source of all life. Our life. God who is our all. God whom we can and must rely upon. God to whom we have the most basic, fundamental, forever relationship. God who is benevolent and whom we can trust. God, without whose constant love and solicitude we would instantly non-be. God to whom we owe everything (Neytiri: "all energy is borrowed and must be given back some day"). Cameron's script says that we shouldn't be focused on one substance from the earth (oil or "unobtainium"), but on the whole earth as a whole. And what is oil but an energy source? The point is clearly made that God is the energy source we all need to be in touch with first, from whom all life and healing and necessities will flow and be taken care of. WOWZA. (Unfortunately, this worldview seems only to apply to Pandora, not anywhere else. But it's a start.)

A word about the women in "Avatar." The female soldiers are all tougher-than-thou, swaggering broads (OK, Michelle Rodriguez really IS tough) who exemplify the male paradigm better than men. Newsflash: This is Feminism 1.0. Can we please see women in traditionally male-held occupations who are, well, a little softer? Who don't look like they're going to suddenly spew tobacco on my shoes at any minute? You see, if we can be women on screen rather than men, this means we've arrived. This means that we don't have anything to prove, that the female paradigm is legit. "We're not there in the real world yet," you say? Well, how about using the media to hasten the day? Is it not arguable that shows like "The Cosby Show" portrayed what can be, or rather a section of the population that existed, but had no visibility in the popular imagination? Practice can precede precept. The female Na'vi are also just female males. They are hunters and warriors. There are NO pregnant Na'vi chicks, and there are NO children nowhere. Only when our emotional heartstrings are being pulled at the end –SPOILER ALERT!—and the Na'vi's home is ready to be fire-bombed do we hear: "There are children and babies down there!" Um, OK—we'll take your word for it (and we've already seen lots of crowd shots). All I could think of was the nomadic Neanderthals. It's believed they went extinct for many, many reasons, but one of them was the lack of division of tasks. Pregnant women and infants went on the hunt. I shudder to think. (There was no way to cook or preserve food—it was hand-to-mouth.)

This is a film squarely about culture, about God, and about the colossal shooting-oneself-in-the-foot foolishness of "might makes right." It made me think: who COULD kick the butt of the "just take whatever you want" United States portrayed in "Avatar"? Hmmm, Mother Nature, perhaps? I have huge doubts about where "global warming" is actually going (I've read Al Gore, the "disaster" scientists who says it's too late to do ANYTHING, and the "denying" scientists who say we're going to be fine), but if you "you-know-what" in your own bed or "you-know-what" where you eat, you're going to have to sleep in it and eat it.


--Jake has good instincts. And shouldn't all the awesome technology he's using also be used for the wonder, fun, exploration, and joy Jake wants to use it for in the beginning (not just for profiteering and destruction)? But in the end, isn't he dumb for not seeing the big, destructive picture he was an integral part of? But in the end, wasn't he smart to know how to win the respect of the tribe back?

--Wasn't Jake cruel to let Neytiri fall in love with him (an avatar!)? But of course there are two examples in the movie (don't wanna spoil it) when/where the real J & N meet....

--J & N are like online dating. You get to know what's inside a person first (if they're honest) and then you meet in the flesh....

--This coming together of real and virtual worlds is another huge theme of "Avatar." At a certain point, I wasn't really distinguishing too much (I "fell for it"!), and by the end, there's a total enmeshment during the battle and of course after....

--I was disappointed by the small IMAX 3-D at Navy Pier, Chicago. First of all, what happened to those huge nausea-inducing-side-of-20-barns-size screens? And the 3-D wasn't all that. But, I was in the first row. And my 3-D glasses were smudgy. And maybe I wasn't supposed to have my 3-D glasses smashed against my eyes, but perched on the end of my nose. And maybe they were getting all foggy because I ran to the theater in a snowstorm. And maybe my eyes are aging and I need real glasses.

--"Avatar" is available in 2-D, IMAX 3-D, Digital 3-D, and Real D 3-D. Say wha????

--I thought the stakes could have been higher than Jake wanting his legs back. And he was never in any real danger, only his avatar was. If there had been some kind of life-and-death CONNECTION between avatar Jake and real Jake, that would have totally upped the ante.

--"Avatar," set in the future, refers to wars in the past with Venezuela and Nigeria….hmmm. What do these two countries have in common?

--If the "Mother Goddess" is outside of and acting on "Mother Earth," where's the yin and the yang? Why is it OK to say "Mother," but not "Father"?

--We don't seem to see any worship/adoration/praise of God in "Avatar," but petition, trust and providence is a good start.

--Like "Book of Eli," is Cameron using exciting, entertaining violence to tell us that violence isn't the way?

--1/17/10 New York Times crossword puzzle already using "Tree of Souls"!

--My definition of Virtual Reality: ANY media representation of reality. If the FULL gift of the bodily presence is not there, it's VR. To put it positively: VR can extend a PART of the gift of the bodily presence in space and time.

--For me, the very simple difference between reality and VR is the body.
1. God created us as bodies. 2. Bodies define us. 3. Bodies are not optional.
Even though it seemed like Jake was really getting in touch with his body and nature and animals on Pandora, he was not. His body was in a pod. He may have been able to experience scent, touch, taste, etc., neurologically only, but—that ain't livin'. Of course, as a paraplegic, this is the ONLY way he could experience being ambulatory again. But it still wasn't his own legs.

--At a certain point Jake says: "Now 'out there' is the true world and here is the dream." Will we ever get to that point as we develop VR? Are we already there? Made me think of Native Americans and the importance they put on DREAMS, a kind of virtual reality! While they were awake, they were also very aware of the "spirit world," which--I think I read somewhere that along with the dreams they believed came from the spirit world--was more real to them than "reality." Interesting. And the Native Americans didn't have the media gadgets that we have today. I'm not even sure that they all had written languages.

--The Na'vi call the earthlings' avatars "dream walkers." And when one disconnected avatar falls to the ground mid-sentence, a Na'vi picks up the body and says: "These are demons in false bodies!" Hmmmm.

--This is a true humanist movie. Yay! Humans (or humanoids) have dominion (not domination) over the earth (or Pandora) and are called to be good stewards. Yay!

--Interesting use of the word "natives" and "aliens." Who's who? When and where?

--Hurrah for the hammerhead rhinos!

--The ultimate cynicism of the Colonel: It will always come to force. Force is the only way to get things done.

--Could an avatar ever be made of organic material? Can organic and synthetic materials ever be fully fused? (It's being attempted as we speak.)

--"Avatar" seems to be James Cameron's idea of utopia (or he is just tapping into the Joseph Campbell deep mythology school of filmmaking).

--The Na'vi "mate for life."

--If I could ask James Cameron ONE question, it would be: Why did you make a THEOLOGICAL film? He didn't have to. It could have been about "the Force" or just life energy. This is THE most theological film (centered squarely on the absolute necessity of God) that I have ever seen.
Seems I have my answer in this interview with "Entertainment Weekly" (1/22/10) p. 35. The magazine was quoting some comments on the film and Cameron was replying.
COMMENT: "This movie in all aspects was the best movie ever, the Holy Spirit spoke to me all the way through.... I am convinced this was of God."
Cameron: "Well, that's nice. Forget about the divine or the mystical. I think it's really more about being in touch with the unconscious.... The more you are in touch with that kind of unconscious dream state, the more you're in touch with the audience."
The question still remains why he DID make it theological, though, although Cameron goes on to state that he doesn't always know why he makes the choices he does in his films and can't explain it.

--The audience clapped at the end.


--Cameron explained his movie thus: "We are all connected, and we're all connected to the earth. If we have to go to a moon with blue people to understand that, so be it."
*Worthington has mastered that American soldier look in his eye, and he's not even American. He resembles a cross between a young (singer) Everlast and wrestler John Cena. Worthington was in "Terminator Salvation" and was seriously considered to play James Bond in "Casino Royale" which went, of course, to Daniel Craig (BIG MISTAKE).


From an email I received:

Maybe I'll say Pope Benedict XVI and your "Catholic New World" review are at odds on the theology of "Avatar."
Did you read AP's quotes from L'Osservatore Romano and Vatican Radio on the movie? Supposedly they "reflect Pope Benedict XVI's views on the dangers of turning nature into a 'new divinity.'"
And then there's Sister Helena (the Lib) "connecting the dots between God, man and nature."
We also have the decorated Marine veteran alderman of the 11th ward who says, the film makes Marines "look like lunatics." He added, "We are a good, generous country that helps people. They never mentioned America but when you have the eagle, globe and anchor -- the Marine Corps emblem -- it has to be America." And Tom Roeser (Catholic conservative) echoed that with "This is the only time I ever sat in a theater where people were cheering the forest and the blue people, attacking ex-Marines."

I knew "Avatar" would cause a stir (the movie itself and any halfway positive review, like mine).

There are two major points of "controversy": First, the portrayal of not just the (thinly-veiled) U.S.-led "Earth" military, but how big government, big science, big business (multi-nationals, not just the U.S.), all work together for better or for worse. Second: the huge theological underpinnings of the world of the Na'vi (on the fantastical animated planet).

First: The "military-industrial complex" (as you know, this term was coined by Eisenhower). Although "Avatar" makes a kind of caricature out of each character representing military, science, business, government, "Avatar" is actually an ode to the individual SOLDIER, doing all the dirty work, putting their life on the line, getting caught up in moral dilemmas. It is interesting that "Jake," the soldier is recognized as having a "very pure spirit" by the Na'vi. Jake is not against violence or use of force, only if it is used immorally. If you read my full review: I really bring this out. I chopped this piece from the CNW review because I wanted to focus on the "God" part and I only have 450 words. eek!. "Avatar" really warranted a longer review to do it justice and avoid confusion. (Please read my whole review, even though it's lengthy.)

Second: I knew people would cry "New Age"! with regard to the God/religion element in "Avatar," but it's not. Unfortunately, what happened, (Catholic News Agency for one) is that it got called "Gnosticism"! "Avatar" is the exact opposite! There is a great lack of critical thinking here and ignorance of the actual meaning of words and concepts. The God/religion in "Avatar" is concrete. It's not a fuzzy "spirituality," it's a concrete nature religion. "Religion" means "to bind," "to connect." Religion deals in tangibles. "Spirituality" deals in just that: the spiritual, the unseen, the often "whatever you want it to be." As I mentioned, the religion is very similar to Native American religions. There is a transcendent God over all who gives and sustains everything, all life. It's a Mother Goddess (see my blog review for my problems with that). The amazing thing to me is that we don't see this kind of COMPREHENSIVE God (of whatever ilk) in the movies. Ever. God is always kept at a safe distance with a small role to play (if any). The entire ending of "Avatar" depends on GOD. And not "deus ex machina" either. GOD is everything, God is integral, God is absolutely necessary. Everything depends on God. This is the point I was trying to make.

Something else that has been going on lately with movie reviews/critiques: people are taking anything that is said by anybody in Rome about a movie and saying "the Vatican declares..." even though nothing has been said in an official capacity or by people with the duty to speak for various offices, etc. Taking the Pope's words out of context and applying them is not good either. In the movie "Avatar," nature is NOT worshipped, is NOT divine, but is dependent on an outside God for life. Actually, if one reads the Pope's strong pro-Creation talk from Jan. 1 (from which the cautionary words about making nature divine were taken), they would be found to be more in SUPPORT of "Avatar"'s respect for nature/living in harmony with nature, actually!

I have great respect for Tom Roeser and his writings. But what is being portrayed in "Avatar" is a (fictional) immoral action by the Marines/U.S./multinational-army-representing-Earth, which nobody should want to defend.

In the end, this is a fantasy. Pot-shot at U.S./military? Perhaps, but not a cheap shot. Again, Jake, the soldier is a hero (who never ceases being a soldier/warrior).

I would suggest you see the movie for yourself and see if what I'm saying isn't true....

thanks again, Sister -- you have a fresh approach, without an obvious agenda -- that's why you're sometimes dangerous.

ha ha--basically what i do is write a rambling, freestyle, non-linear, no-holds barred review for my blog. then i trim that down and edit it like crazy to be much more formal and non-first-person and appropriate for CNW. 450 words is the standard length of my review for CNW.
thanks for saying i don't have an agenda cuz i like to think that. i try to come at it very honestly AND unsuspiciously. i don't bend over backwards to "find the good"--i just really let the thing speak to me, judging it by filmmaking (screenwriting mostly) standards, philosophy, media literacy, theology of the body and the Catholic Faith! i am not looking for the usual "red flags" that causes predictable, stereotyping, alarmist reactions. I am in nobody's camp, but I know how various camps will interpret movies (and my reviews). but i must call 'em like i see 'em. my most difficult review that i'm still rather uncomfortable with actually was "new moon" and this whole thing about "losing one's soul".... i'm still rather disquieted by it. more and more we are seeing this "in between" world on the screen--neither earth, purgatory, heaven or hell--it's just this "other place" where people like the undead hang around.....with it's own rules and stuff. lots of this on TV, too: "medium," "ghost whisperer." maybe it's a kind of limbo. which should now be shuttered (pope B).

i meant to mention to you that James Cameron is no "friend" to Christianity. That's why it's so curious to me that he got "sound natural theology" down quite correctly! (he executive-produced that Canadian documentary on "They Found Jesus" Family Tomb!" in Israel. Jesus' wife, Mary Magdalene was in the family tomb, of course, along with Jesus' bones and the bones of his mother Mary.) HA HA HA.

Check out this NYTimes review that says "A" is actually insulting to indigenous peoples: because of the "White Messiah" thing.

Here are some more interesting reviews:

Fr. Robert Barron praises the prominence of religion in "A," (but I still disagree about the "pantheism"). The mother goddess IS personal: she "decides" and "provides" and when one of the characters dies, they go to "be with" the mother goddess. There are two different things going on: created energy/interconnected life force on the moon Pandora, and the goddess outside of it.

Randy Beeler (young Catholic dude) does fascinating reading of "A" as a kind of anti-Gospel. The blue princess Neytiri is a demonic anti-Mary! I don't think "A" is that sinister, but this is still a fascinating read (check out the anti-Pieta!)

Check out the obsessed fan site:

December 21, 2009


Sr. Helena's note: "The Manhattan Declaration" is not simply platitudes. It is actually a call to civil disobedience if and when the occasion(s) arises.

“'The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience.'"..goes beyond teaching clearly the truth about marriage and family and calls for prophetic witness against genocide, the destruction of the innocent in both war and in abortion, the neglect and abuse of children, the exploitation of vulnerable workers, the sexual trafficking of girls and a number of other issues related to the sanctity of human life and its transmital in marriage and family. Keeping love and life united preserves the common good of all in any society.

Adding to the importance of the 'Manhattan Declaration' is the way it addresses the threat to religious liberty and to freedom of conscience should the state presume to redefine marriage. Calling upon the memory and the example of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the declaration states: 'Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.'

As the group who wrote the declaration was being formed, I was asked to participate. I could not do so, not only because of time constraints but also because, as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I cannot sign statements or give endorsements that might seem to engage the bishops’ conference itself. The bishops who head up important committees of the USCCB, however, are able to sign and have done so. I intend to do so in a year, when my term as president concludes. In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to read the declaration available at . Those who agree with its call can signal their approval by signing it electronically.

Forming a family is never a purely private affair. Families are small societies that create the larger society we all participate in, whether or not we are married. Every one of us has a vested interest in protecting marriage and strengthening family life. This is God’s will for us as we move into celebrating the birth of Jesus. It takes faith to recognize who is born of the Virgin Mary. It takes love to offer our lives to him. It takes courage to follow him all our lives in his family, the church. God bless you."
--reprinted from "The Catholic New World," Chicago's Archdiocesan newspaper

Bookmark and Share

December 19, 2009


The House That Mrs. Jack Built
I was born and raised in Boston, but never visited the world-famous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at the Fenway until a few days ago. It exceeded all my expectations, or rather SHE did.

As a girl, I heard of this magical place and saw photos of the Old World Venetian-style indoor courtyard flooded with sunlight from its glass roof four stories above. But what really thrilled me was this print I saw somewhere of Isabella Stewart Gardner ("Mrs. Jack") bursting through a doorway. I mistakenly thought this painting was by John Singer Sargent (whose artwork was ardently collected by ISG), but it's actually by Andrew Zorn. This radiant portrait captured ISG's spirit, and from that one glimpse, I recognized a kindred spirit, and got what ISG and her museum were all about: a celebration of life and beauty for everyone, guided by ISG's sure, particular, womanly, determined, strong, playful, rich, religious and culturally open aesthetic. (As Mother said, the museum has a "woman's touch," but it doesn't feel overly feminine or frou frou.)
"C'est mon plaisir"
Mother and I parked on the street and entered the boxy but unassuming building at 2 Palace Way under Isabella's welcoming motto: "C'est mon plaisir." (Isabella is alive even outside the building.) You are her guest. Inside is a perfect mix of color, light, statuary, paintings, furniture, sculpture, tapestries, sketches, ceramics, rare books and papers, plants and flowers, artifacts ancient and modern (up to 1903 when the museum opened and ISG completed her 2,500 piece collection). Along with this repository, ISG supported and promoted many young artists and almost every art form including dance and music. The only art she seemed to stay away from was abstract art. (?!) The current artist-in-residence at the ISGM is displaying video.

One word to describe ISG's sensibility? Victorian. The very best of the gilded age (to which I am romantically partial). The courtyard, filled with Roman statues and fountains is looked down on by eight balconies and four Venetian facades. The greenery gives off a palpable hothouse feel. The art galleries are on the first three floors, and the fourth floor where Mrs. Jack used to live has been turned into offices. (Mother was rightly upset that they hadn't preserved--and we didn't get to see--how she lived, that her private quarters weren't PART of the museum.)

On the first floor, there are nooks and crannies, cloister arches, an outdoor walled garden, a cafe and a small gift/book shop. In 1903, ISG threw open her own house to the public forever. When it opened, she had a larger collection than the Boston Museum of Fine Arts which had moved in next door. (Even in real estate, Isabella was a trendsetter, draining the Fens and making it THE place to be.) Since 1903, the ISGM has remained basically unchanged (as per her will). ISG designed and meticulously oversaw the architecture and entire building process herself. "Genius," doesn't even begin to cut it. She was proud to be of the royal house of the "Stuarts," and in a different time and place, ISG would have been a wondrous and munificent queen.

Mother and I meandered around the first floor; ate a "boutique" but satisfying lunch in the tiny cafe; wanted everything in the exquisite, tiny gift/book shop (but settled for two books on our newfound heroine); used the ladies room with its whimsical wall-maxims:
"Le secret de deux:
Le secret de Dieu.
Le secret de trois,
le secret de tous"
and then proceeded to the upper galleries.

A Well-Appointed Room
One thing you must know is that ISG arranged every single gallery herself to the last detail and stipulated in her will that nothing is ever to be moved or sold or added to (sounds like St. John in the New Testament!). Control freak? No. Artist who knew exactly what she was doing. (Her "ebullient" personality was the exact opposite of control freak.) Her whole house (which truly feels more like a house than a museum) is what we would call today an "installation." It is her work of art. Like the new Getty Museum in L.A., the atmosphere itself speaks. Each chamber is not simply four blank walls on which to hang art, it's an actual room with tables and chairs and fireplaces and such, around which all the art is placed as decor. But don't even think of sitting down, because the chairs are also art. Everything in the room is part of the collection.

The Art Whisperer
I was eager to see the (Blessed) Fra Angelico she had acquired, and when we unknowingly walked into the gallery where it hung (along with tons of other religious art), a docent immediately approached me and said: "I want to show you something," and brought me to the Fra Angelico. It was right next to a window with sunlight streaming onto it. Concerned, I mentioned this to the docent who replied (without missing a beat): "That's because SHE wanted YOU to see it in natural light." Whoa. That's right! SHE placed this here herself! Talk about personal. Talk about reaching through the ages. Talk about ISG truly wanting to educate the public about art. ISG is STILL the mistress of the Fenway, aiming and succeeding at surprising and delighting. Mother asked the docent how he knew I wanted to see the Fra Angelico and if he was psychic.
Every step through ISG's house-museum, you feel she's walking beside you, guiding you. SHE is your docent. And every docent we talked to (or rather, Mother talked to) seemed to have a direct line to her thoughts and wishes. (Maybe that little secret service wire coil going from their ears down inside their jackets.... Nah, couldn't be.)

Doberman Docents or Sage Security?
These docents--who insist they are NOT docents but "security guards," (lest we forget the tragic not-so-distant ISGM art theft which included a Vermeer and three Rembrandts are ISG's new friends (young and old), and guardians of her intentions and treasures. I have never met such knowledgeable docents anywhere who eavesdrop carefully to every visitor's conversation and comments and are eager to rejoin and enlighten. However, they are just as eager to swoop down on you if your hand, nose or any protruding joint does not stay more than one foot away from any artifact. And don't lean on anything. Anything. The chiffarobe-thingy displaying the letter from Napoleon Bonaparte is also imported and priceless.

Intimidated by Art
All my life I have been intimidated and frustrated by "art." I've never had an art appreciation course to speak of (and never seem to have time for one), so when I go to art museums, I feel like I don't know what I'm looking for or at. I feel so ignorant and wrong somehow (beyond "I like it," "I don't like it"), and I find myself strangely and unusually inarticulate about why I like/dislike something. But ISG did away with all that. She didn't even label her stuff. There are no signs, dates, names, explanations to read. Even the artisan cheeses in the cafe were unlabeled. I asked one of the non-docents why SHE didn't put labels on any of the artwork. "She probably didn't want her house filled with signs." Ah. Neither would I. After a half-hour in the ISGM, I realized I felt right at HOME with art for the first time, totally non-threatened. As I floated around the palace (for it is a palace), I realized that the absence of signs and reading, reading, reading, made for a much more enjoyable and direct encounter with art. In fact, the ISGM looked like a gay 1890's party was about to ignite at any moment. I think somehow ISG understands the layperson's art-apprehension and wants to totally put us at ease like a fine hostess would. I say "understands," because Mrs. Jack is NOT dead. There is nothing dead about this woman. She is proof that there is life after death: for her, for the artists she has domestically enshrined, for us--the "public" whom she must have felt a future fondness for. But I also think that, secretly, SHE was one of us, rejected as she was by Boston's stuffy high-society.

An Original Among Originals
In the last gallery we visited was a portrait of ISG by John Singer Sargent. Mother gasped to the non-docent: "Is that an original?" Of course, being the sarcastic, ingrate daughter that I am I said: "Shhh, don't tell anyone, Ma, but they're all originals in this place!" The non-docent was not amused (by me) and proceeded to tune me out and take great delight in conversing with Mother who told him he had an aura and that he should think about being an actor or a writer. This young man reassured my mother that sillier things had been said within the hallowed halls of the ISGM. Why just today two teenage girls asked him: "Why is everything in here so OLD?"

A Wrinkle in Time
Time is collapsed within the sanctuary of the ISGM. We have red-blooded access to the distant past, distant lands (Japan was a favorite of Isabella's), and to Isabella's own era (which she transcended anyway). There's even an ancient stone Egyptian "esophagus" (Mother) or two.

ISG was an Episcopalian who wove all kinds of Catholic art (including several altars set up for Mass) into her home-museum, making some galleries more like a house-church. In her world, the sacred and profane are marbled all together where they belong, and as they should be.

And now, a lovely telling story about the soul of this grand dame. There is a chair in one of the galleries where SHE would sit every day and meditate on a tapestry of the Crucifixion. But above and beyond it, she could also see Titian's sensuous "Europa." There are also quite a few breastfeeding Madonnas. Theology of the body. She left instructions that even after her death, fresh violets should be placed in front of this Crucifixion daily--which was done for years until the cost of flying fresh violets in in the middle of January was deemed too extravagant.

The ISGM allows us to literally step back in time, to dial back to a time before WWI and WWII and all that transpired afterward. The ISGM allows us to feel with a fellow human who had a singular greatness of heart. Although Isabella did not have children of her own (one child died shortly after birth, followed by a miscarriage), she generously raised her three nephews and was widowed relatively young.
With all this talk of the Fenway, I'm sure you're wondering. The answer is yes. Isabella was a Red Sox fan and a fan of other sports besides baseball.

Although one feels totally welcome in the ISGM, the tones are rather reverently hushed. One is free to talk (there are no "silence" signs), but no cell phones, please. And no abstract art.
"Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." --Philippians 4:8

"An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives man a healthy 'shock,'...draws him out of himself, from being content with the humdrum, 'reawakens' him, opening the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft." --Pope Benedict XVI to artists 11/21/09

Bookmark and Share

December 13, 2009


"Precious" is a hard movie to watch. "Precious" is the ironic name of a young woman (played with perfectly stifled emotion by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe ) who is anything but precious to her brutal parents (Mary, her devil incarnate mother, is played by Mo'Nique). Based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire, and set in Harlem in 1987, "Precious" is an unblinking look at abuse of every kind heaped upon an adolescent who is basically treated as a slave in her own home. There is no searing tension or terror as we observe the intricacies of the abuse playing out--simply a sick, sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs. It's the "banality of evil" that Hannah Arendt wrote of.

I knew this film would depress me, and it did, even with its somewhat game-changing ending. But "Precious" is, overall, a life-affirming film—not in a facile Hollywood fashion, but in a "wisdom of the streets," "life goes on" sort of way. I did buy that Precious—for the most part--did not retaliate or act out in kind (she turns the abounding hatred she's surrounded with into self-hatred) because some of the kindest people I know are those who've been abused. Abortion is not a viable option in "Precious." Somehow, Precious (in addition to her own kind and stalwart heart) finds enough people to help her make it through. Precious lives, discovers more about, accepts and then changes up her life story with the same kind of simplicity she has reduced her almost monosyllabic verbal communication to. (Her more elaborative voiceover is interwoven in all the right places.)

Some African-Americans are reacting to the film by saying it's stereotyping the experience of Black poverty, others are saying it's about time everyone saw what's "really going on." I couldn't help thinking of the pop culture truism that you've really arrived when your "type" doesn't have to always be portrayed as "saintly" (the noble victim, the hero, the moral character, etc.) any more. It also made me think that "Precious" didn't necessarily have to be an African-American story. Precious could be anyone in the heart of my neighborhood or your neighborhood, who looks like everyone else (although Precious' abuse made her obese) and goes about her day and seems to function like everyone else. Trapped in her own private little horror story.

Subtle social statements are made about the welfare system, illiterate students being advanced year after year, the ideal and emulation of whiteness by non-Whites, superficial social work, even fast food compromising health in lower-income neighborhoods. The way out? Education. There's a familiar role in "Precious" of the self-sacrificing , getting-personally-involved teacher. But thankfully, this part doesn't overshadow Precious herself: her inner reserves, her strength, her innate knowledge down deep somewhere that she was good and her parents bad, her desire and determination to do so much better for her own two children.

From a Media Literacy Education point of view, the educational stress (as it would have been in 1987) is all about reading and writing. Precious' teacher (in the alternative school) goes back to basics (the alphabet) and gets Precious and her cozy all-female class reading, writing, expressing themselves, connecting school and life, and actually enjoying it.

Two singer-actors are a surprising and talented insertion: Mariah Carey and, yes, your eyes don't deceive, Lenny Kravitz.

"Precious" ends in a fitting though unusual place with a "speech," not by Precious, but by her mother. (If Mo'Nique doesn't get an Oscar, it will be as criminal as Mary's self-indictment.)

Precious is a story about breaking cycles—the cycle of abuse and unchecked hatred of a most devastating kind. About the almost limitless ability of human beings to alter any situation, no matter how ingrained or bleak. It starts with love. Love of self. In Precious' case, being able to say one good thing about herself. Precious possesses a kind of inner quietude that matches her exterior: a scrunched-up, silent face of continual consternation. And I think it is from within this solitude that she begins to dig out of the ravages of her non-family's extreme selfishness. The script of our lives is only partially written by others. One does wonder, however, about her future need for ongoing psychological healing. ("Precious" is scrupulously free of any "psychologizing.")

The cinematography is not raw, not slick—it's all over the place and somewhere in between. But it grows on you until you feel it unequivocally belongs with this movie.

Although some have not found much hope in the film (no widespread systemic social change is forthcoming), the transformation really happens at the level of caring individuals, keeping Precious and her ilk from falling through the cracks totally. Precious herself had her own escape valves (picturing herself as an adored pop star or somebody's girlfriend, imagining non-existent happy family memories) when things were worst. The story is left unfinished, but somehow we know that Precious is going to make it because she now knows who/what she is: precious.


COMMENT FROM ANDY KIRCHOFF: The end of your review makes me want to see this movie BADLYI'm guessing this film isn't overtly religious, but I can think of only one way someone could know that they were"precious" despite indications to the contrary in almost every instance of day-to-day life. If a person knows that they have intrinsic value, in spite of everything that happens to them, in spite of everything they've ever done, they will "make it," to say the least. Of course, as Catholics, we know exactly why we have this "intrinsic value"; it's because we are created by God in His image, to love and to serve Him in this life and the next. ... See MoreIf this movie communicates a theme even remotely close to what I've described above (even if not explicitly), I am sure I will like it, if not love it. Heck, it'd be a huge step forward for Hollywood, which seems so dedicated to banality, if not raw obscenity, if a dedicated director could produce something to this effect.

It's a very honest, almost plain film. But not raw. It's not even gritty. It just tells this terribly sad, quiet story. The only overt religion in it is a Gospel choir singing at a certain crucial point. I am cool with the film showing someone being able to find their dignity even without direct knowledge of God because we are the image of God and can intuit our dignity. True humanists do this.What I think I'm most fascinated by is the fact that there is exactly zero "psychology" in the film--just hardcore lines of right and wrong with no excuses. Reminds me of James Baldwin's writing. We don't find out about Precious' parents' tragic childhoods or anything. No excuses. It reminds me of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). CBT doesn't delve into the subconscious or motivations--it's about the here and now--what people are actually DOING or NOT DOING. CBT is not interested in what you say you believe. Only what you actually DO or DON'T DO. Um, didn't Jesus say something like that? "Not those who say: 'Lord, Lord,' but those who do the will of my heavenly Father"???Yes, run see this film! (But it's still not better than "Gran Torino") :]